The UK rifle team begins competition in the 2013 NCAA Championships Friday morning. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Opportunities to prove that you are the very best at what you do don't come along all that often. Yes, in sports, in each individual league from little league to the Olympics, a champion is crowned. That, in essence, is a constant.
For each individual, however, especially at the collegiate level, you only get four opportunities - if you're lucky - to make your mark and leave an eternal legacy.
Kentucky rifle is a special program that continues to put itself into positions to be successful and give itself an opportunity to prove that it is the best rifle program in the country on an annual basis. While many have taken that success for granted over the years, the team itself, coaches and shooters alike, do not.
"Going into the championships, we've worked hard all year," said head coach Harry Mullins. "We bring a good body of work to the table. I feel we've put ourselves in a position that if we can continue to work hard and things bounce our way, we'll be prosperous at the end."
The run for the 2013 NCAA Championships starts Friday morning in Columbus, Ohio. To find out how to follow along with the NCAA Championships, visit this link.
In 2011, after many years of successful runs at the NCAA Championships, the Wildcats were finally crowned as the best in the sport. The opportunity was there, and UK seized it.
As important and validating as a national championship was for Mullins and his program, it's certainly changed his philosophy on the sport. After figuring out what it took to get there and why maybe it took as long as it had, Mullins has taken away the emphasis of winning a national championship, even though it's the ultimate goal.
"After we won it and having the feeling of finally breaking through and winning an NCAA Championship, was it different than all the other meets?" said Mullins. "Yes and no. It was achieving that dream and that goal, but not to take anything away from any of the other squads that came close that gave me everything that they had, they did a pretty good job too. There's something special about winning, no doubt about it."
Mullins learned, however, the only way to get to that point is an even more important process that even allows them to experience the NCAA championship opportunity in the first place.
The pressure is not applied to just the postseason or big meets against the top-ranked teams in the country during the regular season. Every meet, every shot, every skill is equally important. That way, when UK reaches the final two days of the season this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, though the environment and setting might look different, the overall functions and execution are exactly the same, at least in theory.
"If we go into the meet worrying about winning the NCAA Championships, I say there's a high probability that we fail," Mullins said. "We've got to go do what we always do, and do it to the best of our ability and see where that lands us."
That starts at the beginning of the season when the team convenes officially for the first time. Everything from that point forward shapes and molds the type of shooters and competitors that these athletes ultimately become.
Though skill, focus, and talent are traits that ultimately lead to success, Mullins believes that the Cats fate is not ultimately in their own hands, at least not entirely. It takes a little bit of luck to come out on top on the final day of the NCAA Championships, but even though that may be true, Mullins believes that luck can be influenced.
"I think you create your own luck and your own fortune starting in August and how hard you work," said Mullins. "I feel we put in a pretty good body of work in that sense."
That body of work on paper shows that UK is the No. 3 team in the nation heading into the championship, having defeated the No. 1 and No. 4 teams in the country during the regular season with the lone regular season loss coming at the hands of No. 2 TCU. Yet again, it's been one of those patented UK rifle seasons.
Despite the success and the body of work they've put together in 2013, Mullins and his team still feels there is another level they can reach. They've worked hard on the range with the intent of peaking at exactly the right moment. That is perhaps the toughest part of Mullins' job: structuring a training schedule that allows for that to happen.
The hope is that by this point in the season, needing two days of peak performance from its shooters, Kentucky can put together its best event of the season. If that happens is anyone's guess.
"Did we burn it all out? Are we going to be spent?" said Mullins. "Is our tank going to be empty by the time we get there? That's going to be hard to measure until we get there because we're dealing with humans. You try to take away as many distractions as humanly possible."
The distractions are numerous, and each one is magnified in a sport where ultimate focus and stillness is the key to success. Even the smallest flinch could ruin a good day, or worse, cost an NCAA championship. That's what this season has been about, however: reducing the chances of that happening.
If it all comes together for Kentucky, it won't be a surprise. The Cats have set themselves up for this opportunity. They've worked for it. Mullins just hopes that his team has an opportunity at the end of the day to win that trophy.
"Every coach hopes their first shooter comes out of the gate just smoking and that the team picks up the momentum and starts stacking points," said Mullins. "It will probably boil down to the last few shots in air rifle. I'd like to see it that we're either far enough in the lead that those last few shots don't matter, or that if we're not in the lead, we're within striking distance at the end."
And if that happens, the opportunity to be the best will be within their grasp. Winning this event could change their lives.
"They, for the rest of their life, will be treated different," said Mullins.
Competition in the 2013 NCAA Rifle Championships begins on Friday morning at 8 a.m. ET and third-ranked Kentucky in trying for a second national title in three seasons.
Just eight teams are competing in smallbore on Friday and air rifle on Saturday. Here is the Wildcats' schedule:
March 8 (smallbore): Relay 1 (8 a.m.): Emily Holsopple, Stacy Wheatley, Elijah Ellis Relay 2 (8:45 a.m.): Aaron Holsopple, Heather Greathouse Relay 3 (9:30 a.m.): Connor Davis, Henri Junghänel (The smallbore final will take place after the third relay)
March 9 (air rifle): Relay 1 (8:00 a.m.): Emily Holsopple, Aaron Holsopple, Heather Greathouse Relay 2 (8:45 a.m.): Connor Davis, Henri Junghänel (The air rifle final will take place after the second relay)
There are a number of ways fans can keep up with the action. First of all, NCAA.com is airing live streams of all events. Here's how you can find those:
Men's basketball - Kentucky captured a pair of critical home victories this week including an overtime thriller against Missouri. - Senior Julius Mays poured in a team-high 24 points in the win over Missouri on Saturday. He launched four 3-pointers and has now connected on at least one shot from long range in 16 straight games. - Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein notched a career-high 20 points to push UK past Vanderbilt earlier in the week. He followed that performance with a career-high tying 12 rebounds against Missouri to go along with a career-best seven blocked shots. - Alex Poythress scored 21 points, while Archie Goodwin notched 18 - all coming after the half in the win over Missouri.
Women's basketball - Kentucky split road games last week, defeating No. 10/13 Texas A&M 70-66 in College Station on ESPN2's Big Monday before falling at LSU on Sunday in Baton Rouge 77-72. - Against the Aggies, junior center DeNesha Stallworth flirted with a triple-double as she charted 12 points, 12 rebounds and a school-record seven blocks. . - Mathies netted a team-high 20 points at LSU, passing former Wildcat great Victoria Dunlap as UK's No. 2 all-time leading scorer with 1,863 career points.
Gymnastics - Kentucky recorded its best score of the year at Florida on Friday. The Wildcats finished with a total score of 196.075, dropping the meet to the Gators' score of 196.975. - UK's score was good for the sixth best in program history. - The Wildcats used season-high event scores on vault and beam to reach 196 for the first time this season. - Audrey Harrison also notched her sixth all-around title of the season and fourth in a row, scoring a 39.225.
Rifle - The Kentucky rifle team finished second at the Great America Rifle Conference over the weekend, shooting a 4690 over the course of the weekend. - Freshman Connor Davis won the GARC individual air rifle title, shooting a 596 before winning with a 105 in the Final. - Senior Henri Junghanel placed second overall individually with an aggregate score of 1179.
Softball - The UK softball team continued its winning ways over the weekend with a 3-0 record, taking down Georgetown, Howard and USC Upstate. - Sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner led the Wildcats offensively with a .583 (7-for-12) average with two doubles, two homers, eight RBI and four runs scored. - Pitchers Ellen Weaver, Katie Henderson and Kelsey Nunley all recorded wins, while Weaver going five strong innings, allowing only one hit and no runs against Georgetown and Henderson allowing only one hit over five innings against Howard. Nunley threw the final nine innings against Upstate to get the win.
Baseball - No. 8 Kentucky continued its season-opening six-game road trip with the Caravelle Resort Invitational, hosted by Coastal Carolina in Myrtle Beach. S.C., picking up wins over CCU and Elon and suffering its first loss of the year to Kansas State in the opener on Thursday. - UK finished the weekend with a ninth-inning win at Coastal Carolina, 2-2. - UK has hit .314 as a team through six games, slugging .435 and reaching base at a .311 clip. UK has stolen 12 bases and on the mound, owns a 3.57 ERA, with 16 walks and 42 strikeouts in 53 innings.
Track and field - The women's track and field team finished seventh in the SEC Indoor Championship team standings with 34 points, and the men finished 10th with 30. - Cally Macumber led all Wildcats with 15 points earned throughout the meet. Matt Hillenbrand led the men with 11.25. Macumber won the women's 3,000 meters SEC championship. - Hillenbrand won the SEC mile championship with a time of 4:01.55. Hillenbrand's time was a new personal best, and the seventh-fastest in school history. The junior became the first Kentucky athlete to win the SEC men's mile since David Freeman took home the title in 2004.
Men's tennis - The No. 6 men's tennis team traveled to Birmingham, Ala., this weekend and collected two wins in a doubleheader with Samford University and Jacksonville State, both by a score of 5-1, to move to 12-2 on the season. - No. 90 Anthony Rossi picked up his 93rd and 94th career wins in a UK uniform on Sunday with wins in both matches for the Wildcats. - Also picking up wins in both ends of the doubleheader for the Wildcats were Beck Pennington, Kevin Lai and Juan Pablo Murra.
Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team defeated the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks 5-2. - Freshman Nadia Ravita improved to 7-1 in the No. 1 singles slot after defeating Christiana Raymond 6-1, 6-2. - Senior Jessica Stiles and sophomore Stephanie Fox won their singles matches in straight sets, with Stiles winning 6-4, 6-3 and Fox taking the No. 6 singles point 6-3, 6-1. - The Wildcats moved into the rankings for the first time this season, landing in the No. 63 spot.
Men's golf - The Kentucky men's golf team opened up its 2013 spring season, placing 10th out of 16 teams in the Mobile Bay Intercollegiate. UK finished 37-over-par with a final score of 901. - Senior Chase Parker was the low golfer of the week for the Wildcats, finishing tied for 16th overall at 4-over-par. - Junior transfer Ben Stow made his Kentucky debut, placing tied for 27th at 6-over-par.
Swimming and diving - The UK men's and women's swimming and diving teams competed in the 2013 Southeastern Conference Swimming and Diving Championships last week with both the men (368.5) and the women (452.5) finishing in ninth place. - Junior diver Greg Ferrucci earned two second place finishes on the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard events and earned an eighth place on the platform. He broke the program record on the platform in the preliminaries with a 435.5. - Junior swimmer Lucas Gerotto broke multiple program records at the Championships including the 200-IM (1:47.20) and the 100-backstroke (47.29).
Thursday, Feb. 28 Women's basketball at Ole Miss - 8:00 p.m.
Friday, March 1 Softball vs. Illinois - 11:30 a.m. (Tampa, Fla.) Women's tennis at Arkansas - 1:00 p.m. Men's tennis hosts Arkansas - 1:00 p.m. Softball vs. USF - 2:00 p.m. (Tampa, Fla.) Baseball hosts Akron - 4:00 p.m. Track and field at NCAA Qualifying (South Bend, Ind./Fayetteville, Ark.)
Saturday, March 2 Baseball hosts Akron - Noon Softball vs. Loyola Marymount - 12:15 p.m. (Tampa, Fla.) Softball vs. Central Michigan - 2:45 p.m. (Tampa, Fla.) Baseball hosts Akron - 3:00 p.m. Men's basketball at Arkansas - 4:00 p.m. Swimming and diving at Last Chance Meet (Knoxville, Tenn./Athens, Ga.) Track and field at Last Chance Qualifier (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Sunday, March 3 Softball vs. Western Michigan - 9:00 a.m. (Tampa, Fla.) Men's tennis hosts LSU - 1:00 p.m. Women's tennis at LSU - 1:00 p.m. Gymnastics at Ball State - 1:00 p.m. Baseball hosts Akron - 1:00 p.m. Women's basketball hosts Tennessee - 3:30 p.m. Men's golf at USF Invitational (Tampa, Fla.) Swimming and diving at Last Chance Meet (Knoxville, Tenn./ Athens, Ga.)
Emily Holsopple looks to earn her first GARC Championship this weekend in Oxford, Miss. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky rifle team heads south to Oxford, Miss., for the Great American Rifle Conference Championships this weekend, UK is also inching closer and closer to the NCAA Championships. With UK already being selected to the NCAA field earlier this week, this weekend's meet will not only give the Wildcats a the opportunity to gain more competitive experience, but it provides the chance to earn some hardware.
Kentucky veterans are already decorated performers, but this weekend caries extra significance to some of them, particularly junior Emily Holsopple.
"(This weekend) means a lot in terms of getting ready for the NCAA Championships," said Holsopple. "We want to go out and perform our best. Honestly, I've never won a conference championship, so it would be great to do to build momentum going into nationals."
Ultimately, though, for a program like Kentucky, as well as the West Virginias and TCUs of the rifle world, the focus is to prepare for the NCAA Championships.
Having split its meets with TCU and West Virginia so far this season, UK will get a rematch with the Mountaineers after defeating WVU in Lexington just 20 days ago. The Cats will see them yet again in the NCAA Championships.
Last weekend, however, not facing either team, UK wasn't completely sharp in its NCAA qualifying round. With a chance to perform in that competitive environment and improve under pressure, UK didn't quite live up to the billing.
"Under the gun, some of our individuals struggled because they've been training hard and performing hard," said head coach Harry Mullins. "They've been right there at the threshold to get to that next level of performance as far as yielding the scores go. It's not like they aren't working hard, it's just that the hard work they are giving isn't yielding the scores."
With the postseason here and UK creeping closer and closer to that ultimate goal, the pressure only increases. From here on out, starting this weekend at the GARC Championships, it will be about who can handle that pressure moving forward.
"I'm hoping from an individual perspective we'll be able to do that," said Mullins. "Now it's more about who can hold up under the pressure. The pressure being that everybody wants to win and that everybody wants to put the highest score up possible so that the team wins and from an individual standpoint."
That pressure will loom large this weekend as a revenge-seeking No. 1 West Virginia team looks to overcome the No. 3 Wildcats. Though WVU likely poses the biggest threat to UK and its chances for a GARC title, it's important that Kentucky doesn't focus on their opponent, rather the course they will be competing in.
As Mullins often philosophizes about in his office and to his team, in the sport of rifle, there is no defense. So Kentucky must handle their own business if they hope to come away as champions this weekend.
"You can't just think about West Virginia," said Mullins. "Otherwise someone will come up and sneak up behind you. You've got to think about the course. When you start thinking about just West Virginia, not that you can take them lightly, but you want to use those types of things as motivators throughout the course of the season, and then from there on out, just work on working on the performance."
One of Kentucky's strengths this season has been composure. The Cats don't get too wrapped up in the hype of facing the top teams in the country. And they don't let down their guard when they face anyone else. Their highs are never too high and the lows never too low.
That's why last weekend's performance won't affect them at the conference championships. That's why this weekend, whether UK defeats the field that includes West Virginia or not, it won't affect the Cats heading into the NCAA Championships.
"It's important, but it's not make-or-break," said Holsopple. "If we don't do well, we still have the NCAA Championships, so either way, we're going to learn from it and move on."
Men's basketball - The Kentucky men's basketball team dropped an 88-58 loss to Tennessee on Saturday. Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer led the Cats with 18 points and six rebounds. - Senior Julius Mays scored 12 points and has logged 10 or more points in five straight games. - Junior Jarrod Polson contributed a career-high 11 points.
Women's basketball - Kentucky has won its last three games and looks to keep its winning streak alive when it faces No. 11/13 Texas A&M on ESPN2's Big Monday in the second meeting of the season between the teams. - The Wildcats charted their 10th SEC win last week with an impressive come-from-behind victory over No. 16/14 South Carolina. Trailing by 16 points early in the second half, the Wildcats used a four-guard set to chip away at the Gamecocks' lead and win 78-74 - the largest comeback in the Matthew Mitchell era. - Four players scored in double digits led by redshirt sophomore point guard Jennifer O'Neill with 19.
Gymnastics - Then-No. 17 Kentucky defeated Missouri 194.250-194.125 on Friday night in Memorial Coliseum. - Audrey Harrison was the lone all-around competitor posting a 39.3, which tied her career-high set last week. - The junior also won balance beam, and shared the honors on uneven bars and floor exercise. - The Knoxville, Tenn., native now has 12 individual event honors this season and 19 in her career. - Her five all-around wins in 2013 have all come against Southeastern Conference competition. - Shannon Mitchell tied Harrison for the floor title, her second of the season and the third of her career.
Rifle - The Kentucky rifle team shot a 4697 on Saturday at the NCAA Qualifiers. - Sophomore Elijah Ellis and senior Stacy Wheatley delivered personal bests in smallbore, with Ellis posting a 583 and Wheatley shooting a 586. - Senior Henri Junghänel led the team in smallbore and air rifle, shooting a 588 in smallbore and a 594 in air rifle.
Softball - The No. 22/24 UK softball team continued where it left off last weekend by defeating another ranked team en route to a 4-1 record in the 23rd Campbell/Cartier Classic in San Diego. The Wildcats posted wins over No. 16 Washington, San Diego State - who is receiving votes in one poll - Cal Poly and UC Riverside. - Junior pitcher/infielder Lauren Cumbess paced the Wildcats throughout the weekend at the plate, blasting two homers for a .500 average (8-for-16) at the event with five RBI. Cumbess also went 1-0 in the circle, while freshman hurler Kelsey Nunley went 3-0 with a 2.21 ERA over the weekend. Nunley defeated San Diego State and Washington, throwing a complete game shutout against the Aztecs allowing only three hits. - UK has now defeated three ranked teams this season in then-No. 3 Cal, No. 16 Washington and No. 20 Stanford. Coach Rachel Lawson and Co. have also taken down Oregon State and SDSU, who both were receiving votes when UK posted wins against them. After two weekends of play, UK is 8-3 with its only losses coming to No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 3 Arizona State and unranked Portland State.
Baseball - Kentucky began the season 2-0 with wins over UNC Asheville and Niagara in Spartanburg, S.C. UK wraps up play at Wofford on Monday against USC Upstate. - Junior second baseman J.T. Riddle set a new program record with a 6-for-6 game at the plate and starter Jerad Grundy tied a career-best with nine strikeouts in six innings in the win over Niagara. - Sophomore All-America southpaw A.J. Reed worked five innings on the mound and went a career-best 4-for-5 at the plate with three RBI, leading No. 8 Kentucky to a 9-2 season-opening win over UNC Asheville.
Men's tennis - Kentucky advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2013 ITA National Team Indoor Championships this weekend in Seattle, recording wins over No. 10 Mississippi State (4-0), and No. 6 Georgia (4-2). - UK's No. 90 Anthony Rossi went 2-0 in singles action, defeating No. 12 Raymond Sarmiento of Southern Cal and knocking off No. 21 Nathan Pasha of Georgia 6-4, 7-6 (7) on Sunday. - With the wins this weekend, UK recorded their seventh win of the season over teams in the top 25 of the ITA rankings, as the Wildcats are now 3-1 versus teams in the top 10. - Tom Jomby also went 2-0 in singles play this weekend, collecting two straight-set wins. On Friday, Jomby ran past No. 43 Malte Stroppe of Mississippi State 6-2, 6-0 before giving UK a crucial point in its match with UGA, collecting a 6- 4, 6-4 win over No. 92 over No. 92 Ben Wagland at the two slot.
Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team knocked off No. 55 Ohio State and No. 54 Indiana throughout the course of the week, taking both matches 4-3. - Freshman Nadia Ravita recorded two singles win in the No. 1 slot to go along with two doubles wins in the No. 1 slot, paired with junior Caitlin McGraw. - Senior Jessica Stiles went 2-0 on the week in the No. 2 singles spot, taking both matches in straight sets.
Women's golf - The UK women's golf team began their 2013 spring season with an eighth place finish in the 15-team field at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic Feb. 10-12. - Senior Ashleigh Albrecht was the low finisher for the Wildcats, tying for 14th at 7-over-par. - Junior Liz Breed and freshman Sarah Harris were tied for 28th at 12-over, while freshman Cylia Damerau placed tied for 34th at 13-over.
Upcoming schedule Tuesday, Feb. 19 Women's tennis hosts Miami (OH) - 4:00 p.m. Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (College, Station, Texas) Men's golf at Mobile Bay Intercollegiate (Mobile, Ala.)
Wednesday, Feb. 20 Men's basketball hosts Vanderbilt - 8:00 p.m. Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (College, Station, Texas)
Thursday, Feb. 21 Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (College, Station, Texas)
Friday, Feb. 22 Baseball vs. Elon - Noon (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Softball vs. Presbyterian - 2:00 p.m. (Spartanburg, S.C.) Gymnastics at Florida - 7:00 p.m. Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (College, Station, Texas) Track and field at SEC Championships (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Saturday, Feb. 23 Softball vs. Georgetown - Noon (Spartanburg, S.C.) Women's tennis at Kansas - 1:00 p.m. Softball vs. USC Upstate - 2:00 p.m. (Spartanburg, S.C.) Baseball vs. Coastal Carolina - 3:00 p.m. (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Men's basketball hosts Missouri - 9:00 p.m. Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (College Station, Texas) Track and field at SEC Championships (Fayetteville, Ark.) Rifle at GARC Championships (Oxford, Miss.)
Sunday, Feb. 24 Softball vs. Howard - 10:00 a.m. (Spartanburg, S.C.) Men's tennis at Samford - 10:00 a.m. Baseball vs. Kansas State - 11:00 a.m. (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Men's tennis vs. Jacksonville State - 2:00 p.m. (Birmingham, Ala.) Women's basketball at LSU - 3:00 p.m. Track and field at SEC Championships (Fayetteville, Ark.) Rifle at GARC Championships (Oxford, Miss.)
Junior Aaron Holsopple shot a career-best 588 in smallbore in UK's win over West Virginia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
A win over the No. 1 ranked team in the land is never an accomplishment to scoff at. To be the best, one must beat the best, as they say.
The No. 3 Kentucky rifle team (10-1) is coming off a match in which the Wildcats took down the most decorated team in the sport, No. 1 West Virginia, defeating the Mountaineers in Lexington, 4704-4695. The win, while impressive, is just that: another win.
Well, it meant a little more than that, perhaps. The victory gave Kentucky the Great American Rifle Conference regular-season championship too. While that's an impressive honor, the Wildcats have their sights set on returning the NCAA championship trophy to the Bluegrass.
Defeating West Virginia in the first of likely three meetings this season is just UK's first taste of what they are hoping is yet to come.
"If you break it down to a three-course meal, we got the appetizer," said UK rifle head coach Harry Mullins. "Now we're kind of looking at the main course and then we'll get dessert at the end, because that's the sweetest one."
Mullins knows it's the sweetest because he's tasted it that success before. In 2011, Kentucky climbed the summit of the rifle world and won its first national championship.
Now firmly entrenched as one of the top rifle programs in the nation, the Wildcats are battling the likes of fellow powerhouses No. 1 West Virginia and No. 2 TCU.
Though Kentucky took down No. 1, the Cats fell to TCU earlier in the season. While a loss is always disappointing, the nature of the sport allows for moral victories if you lose and still shoot well. After all, the rankings are based on the average of each team's top-three scores of the season.
Despite the loss, Kentucky never wavered on continuing its path to its long-range goals.
"Obviously the TCU loss in the fall was disappointing, but we still had a good performance," said Mullins. "I don't think their attitude has changed any, though, because we're looking toward that end goal, training so that we have a great performance for the NCAA Championships."
And the win against West Virginia, even though it came against the top team in the country, hasn't changed the Cats' attitudes either.
"It didn't change the way I think," said junior Aaron Holsopple. "West Virginia's still ranked No. 1 last time I checked, TCU's still ranked No. 2 and we're still in the same spot. We shot a good match that day. They didn't shoot up to their reputation and the expectations of themselves, and we did."
That attitude and mentality has Kentucky near the top of the sport, and has kept the Cats there for several years. Now, UK is annually in the hunt for national championships, though they may not come with the frequency as the Wildcats would like. It's an attitude that is a combination of the state of the program, the success speaking for itself, and what Mullins looks for when recruiting his athletes to Kentucky.
"The type of people we look for in the program," said Mullins, "sometimes it's learned and sometimes it comes natural. Part of it is it's not one particular area. Part of it comes from our sport because we're constantly striving for that perfect number."
The 4700 mark is one that Kentucky has reached on three separate occasions this season. It's a mark the Cats strive for, but it's hardly their ceiling. UK is still looking for its perfect number, but the Cats are more than OK with the fact that they haven't found it yet.
Kentucky's high score on the season is a 4716, which came way back on Oct. 21 against Army. Since then, the Cats scored a 4705 to defeat Alaska-Fairbanks and the 4704 that propelled them past West Virginia. When the Cats dropped their lone match of the season to TCU, the Horned Frogs shot a 4718. As the Cats appear to be trending up, they look to build on that 4704 mark they shot against West Virginia with designs on an uphill ascent heading into conference and NCAA championships.
"I really feel like the West Virginia match was a stepping stone," said Holsopple, who shot a career-best 588 in smallbore. "It was just the foothills of what's to come. We haven't peaked at all this year. We're still working up to it on a gradual slope and I think it's going really well."
That gradual slope is going to have to lead to Kentucky stringing back to back performances together, specifically in the conference championships and heading into the NCAAs. So far, Kentucky is yet to string consecutive performances of 4700-plus.
"That's a challenge that we have to overcome and an evolutionary part of our program," said Mullins.
This weekend, UK heads into the NCAA Qualifier, scheduled for Feb. 16-17 in the Cats' home range once again. Though Kentucky is a virtual lock to make the NCAA Championships, this weekend is another opportunity for UK to build on the momentum and the confidence it gained by defeating the Mountaineers.
"It's important," said Holsopple. "The West Virginia match was the first step. I feel like this one should be somewhere around the same level. If we dip here, it might affect our confidence a little bit. I think if we shoot at the same level it will boost us into the championships."
Kentucky will then see West Virginia again in the GARC Conference Championship for a second time. That match will carry a bit more importance, but knowing that UK has already knocked the Mountaineers off once will only help the Cats going forward as they continue to their quest up the mountain for the ultimate prize.
"Coming up with a win against West Virginia helps solidifies that confidence that we're marching toward that goal," said Mullins. "For our team to be able to see that they can compete with West Virginia, especially shoulder to shoulder, I think definitely helps strengthen their confidence moving on to the next phase."
Senior Emily Holsopple will have a significant impact on Saturday's match with No. 1 WVU. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It's not how you start. It's how you finish.
That doesn't mean that winning should be deemphasized, but with a more important goal in mind down the road, losing in the regular season isn't quite be-all and end-all for the Kentucky rifle team. The Wildcats, however, have been pretty exceptional up to this point.
UK sure would like a win this weekend though when they host No. 1 ranked West Virginia in the final regular season match.
"It would be a great accomplishment with the team that West Virgina has to beat them," said head coach Harry Mullins. "A win against West Virginia would be huge stepping stone in getting where we want to be at the end of the season."
It's been an ongoing rivalry between these two top programs. West Virginia has a rich history in the sport, claiming 14 national championships, including one that they came back and "stole" from Kentucky in 2009.
Over the last several years, the teams have continued to establish themselves as among the top rifle programs in the country. Currently, West Virginia is the top dog, but it hasn't been that way all season.
The No. 3 Wildcats have already faced one No. 1-ranked opponent this season in TCU. The Horned Frogs, now ranked No. 2 and sandwiched between WVU and UK, have been the Cats' toughest task yet in the 2012-13 season.
In the mid-November match-up, UK and TCU tangled in another one-versus-three matchup with the Horned Frogs handing Kentucky its first and only loss of the season. The Cats shot well, scoring a 4693 that would have been good to beat each of the other nine opponents they've faced so far this season. TCU was fantastic on that day, however, and UK's best score of the season, a 4716, would not have been able to overcome TCU's 4718 final tally.
"They were pretty mad about the loss," said Mullins. "We tried to peak, but we didn't peak. We learned why we didn't peak and therefore hopefully we'll be able to learn from our past performances in order to enhance our present performances."
West Virginia will pose every bit of the challenge that TCU gave the Wildcats in November and then some. Now it's time to see what the Cats have truly learned since their last date with No. 1.
Though the match starts at 8 a.m. ET Saturday, several of the stars in the sport will be on display throughout the afternoon. West Virginia, as evidenced by the No. 1 ranking, has several athletes capable of earning All-America honors this season.
"They've got some very talented people between Maren Prediger, who shoots great air rifle, and Petra Zublasing, who is great in both (air rifle and smallbore)," said Mullins. "Then you add Garrett Spurgeon and Meelis Kiisk and the rest of the squad and they're definitely the team out there that everybody's chasing."
Though the competition is stout this weekend, UK isn't the No. 3 team in the country for nothing and could have a few All-Americans of its own.
The Wildcats boast a duo of shooters who are pretty special in their own right: senior Henri Junghanel and junior Emily Holsopple. Each has championship experience from their national title run in 2010 and lead the Cats as their top two shooters along with freshman Connor Davis.
They also have international experience, as Junghanel, Holsopple and Davis along with Elijah Ellis went to compete in the Bavarian Air Gun Championships in Germany last weekend. Now, for the first time in three weeks, the team will reunite to compete against the nation's best.
The time apart shouldn't be a problem, but if UK ends up losing this weekend on account of a strain in chemistry, the team as a whole is still better off.
"I think the opportunities that were given by the four being gone definitely paid dividends," said Mullins. "We ended up beating Memphis on the second day in Mississippi and came in third at the Withrow Invitational.
"Does it stink that they weren't together? Yes, but I think we prepared the overall group for that. And it probably instilled some confidence in the team as well."
At the end of the day, when the dust settles and the final shots are made, win or lose, Kentucky is focused on a much greater picture. It also likely won't be the last time that UK and WVU are shooting against each other this season.
After this weekend, UK will look forward to the NCAA Qualifier in mid-February followed by the GARC Conference Championships the following week where they will see the Mountaineers yet again. After that, if all goes as planned, Kentucky will be competing for a national championship in the second weekend of March.
Regular-season victories are great, and UK would certainly relish an upset of the Mountaineers on Saturday, but the Wildcats are much more focused on improving this weekend as they prepare for potential postseason glory.
"As long as we're on an upward climb of performance, as long as we keep focusing on performance going forward, I think that our scores will match that focus because we have talented people on our team," said Mullins.
Men's basketball - Following its most complete victory of the season within SEC action, the Wildcats conclude its two-game road swing through the Heart of Dixie at Alabama on Tuesday. - Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer turned in another 17-point performance, while classmate Ryan Harrow reached double figures for the eighth straight game and dished out a UK career-high eight assists in the win. Freshman Nerlens Noel continued his imposing defensive prowess with a career-high seven blocks to couple with 10 points and nine rebounds. - Alabama enters the matchup following a one-point victory over Texas A&M on Saturday. The Anthony Grant-led Crimson Tide are 11-6 overall on the season and own a 3-1 record within SEC play.
Women's basketball - No. 5 Kentucky improved to 18-1 overall, 6-0 in the SEC with commanding wins over Mississippi State and Auburn last week in Memorial Coliseum. The Cats are now riding a school-record 33-game home winning streak and the nation's longest overall winning streak at 17. - The 100-47 win over Mississippi State was the largest margin of victory over an SEC opponent in school history. Junior center DeNesha Stallworth led four players in double digits with a UK career-high 25 points in just 24 minutes of action. Senior All-America candidate A'dia Mathies followed with 21 points. UK forced 25 turnovers and won the rebounding battle 46-20. - In UK's "We Back Pat" game vs. Auburn, defense was again the name of the game. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 21 first half points, taking a 51-21 lead at the break. Mathies led the way with 16 points in the opening stanza. She went on to notch her second straight 20-point game with a season-high 24 points on a near perfect shooting night. Mathies hit 8-of-9 from the field, including 5-of-6 from the 3-point line and 3-of-4 from the charity stripe. Gymnastics - The No. 14 University of Kentucky gymnastics team defeated No. 9 Arkansas in convincing fashion in front of more than 5,600 fans inside Memorial Coliseum on Friday. - The Wildcats took the meet 195.5-193.075 while winning every team and individual event. - The Wildcats continued the unprecedented start to the season as Friday's win gave the program back-to-back SEC wins for the first time ever. All four wins this season have come against higher-ranked opponents. - Kentucky is off to the best start in school history as the Wildcats have never before topped 195 in all three meets to begin the season. - Audrey Harrison stole the Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic show winning the individual all-around competition for the second consecutive week. The Knoxville, Tenn., native's season high 39.275 was highlighted by her 9.9 to anchor on uneven bars with a score, which ties for her career high. - Harrison won individual titles on bars and floor exercise (9.85). The junior now has four event titles this year and 11 all-time.
Rifle - Kentucky knocked off two top-15 teams over the weekend in Oxford, Miss., defeating No. 11 Ole Miss (4670 - 4611) on Saturday and No. 10 Memphis (4646 - 4598) on Sunday. - Senior Heather Greathouse led the Wildcats in their win over Ole Miss, shooting an 1176 aggregate score. Freshman Connor Davis delivered a 594 in air rifle. - Senior Ed Ryznar had a strong showing in Kentucky's win over Memphis, shooting a 574 in smallbore and 588 in air rifle. - Sophomore Cody Manning recorded a new personal best aggregate score of 1162 in Sunday's match with Memphis.
Men's tennis - The Kentucky men's tennis team got off to a 2-0 start to the 2013 season with two 7-0 wins over Northern Kentucky and Morehead State. - The pair of wins were the first in the head coaching career of Cedric Kauffmann. - No. 15 Tom Jomby and No. 94 Anthony Rossi each earned singles wins on Sunday, while Jomby and Kevin Lai went 2-0 on the day in doubles. - UK next takes to the court on Wednesday at No. 22 Indiana in Bloomington for the Wildcats first of 15 matches versus ranked teams in 2013.
Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team opened the 2013 season with two dominating wins, defeating Morehead State 7-0 and Belmont 6-1 on Saturday. - Freshman Nadia Ravita opened her collegiate career with two singles wins in the No. 1 spot and two doubles wins paired with junior Caitlin McGraw in the No. 1 doubles slot. - Sophomore Stephanie Fox failed to drop a set in two singles wins on Saturday, taking both contests 6-0, 6-0.
Tuesday, Jan. 22 Men's basketball at Alabama - 9:00 p.m.
Wednesday, Jan. 23 Men's tennis at Indiana - 2:00 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 24 Women's basketball at South Carolina - 7:00 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 25 Track and field hosts Rod McCravy Memorial - 10:00 a.m. Men's tennis hosts Michigan State - 1:00 p.m. Gymnastics at Alabama - 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 26 Track and field hosts Rod McCravy Memorial - 10:00 a.m. Swimming and diving host Louisville - 12:30 p.m. Men's basketball hosts LSU - 4:00 p.m. Men's tennis hosts Texas/South Carolina
Connor Davis and three of his teammates will compete in the Bavarian Air Gun Championships Jan. 24-26 in Germany. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky rifle team has multiple enormous opportunities ahead of them in the next few weeks. The Wildcats will compete in two matches this weekend in Oxford, Miss., four of their athletes will compete in the Bavarian Air Gun Championships in Germany next weekend and they have a date with second-ranked West Virginia on February 2.
The only caveat is that those four Europe-bound shooters, four of the best shooters on the team, will miss this Sunday's match against Memphis.
Henri Junghanel will compete for his native Germany in the Bavarian Championships while Emily Holsopple, Connor Davis and Elijah Ellis will suit up for the United States.
It's a major honor to have four different shooters represent the University of Kentucky at the international level.
"It's great for the team," said Junghanel. "I've been on the international circuits for awhile now, but that's an awesome experience athletics-wise, but also generally. To be in Munich, it's a really interesting place, and it will be great for everybody."
It will be the first time Ellis will have competed internationally. In fact, it will be the first time he'll ever even have left the country. But for the other three shooters, they each have experience in that event. Even so, more competition at such a high level can only help down the road.
"That intensity level," said Davis. "In the international competition, a good score over there is a lot better than over here. If you're lower here, it's not as good over there. Just bringing that intensity from the international level home really helps."
Junghanel will not get to compete at all this weekend, missing both the Ole Miss and Memphis matches to head home early to train in Austria. The other three will leave immediately after their conference match with Ole Miss.
But the biggest opportunity for the UK rifle team will happen on the range in Oxford, Miss., when the Wildcats face Memphis without four of the best they have to offer.
"It's a great opportunity for them to embrace the opportunity of it's my time, and it's my time right now," said head coach Harry Mullins. "Now, for some of them to step into the team spotlight, that's what the basis of our program is for them to eventually move into that."
Whoever earns the right to fill those spots will have big shoes to fill. Junghanel leads the team in smallbore (588.9) and air rifle (593.0). Holsopple is second in the smallbore (584.9) while Davis is second in air rifle (591.3). But whoever ends up taking their place will have earned that opportunity.
"We don't want that to happen by default or attrition," said Mullins. "We want it to happen by hard work. I'm not looking for them to give me the scores that Henri, Connor and Emily give, but the effort that they bring every match."
While those four are off competing in Germany, their thoughts will still be with their Kentucky team back in the United States. However, they are all confident that those they leave behind can more than pick up the slack and earn a win without them this weekend.
"I have great faith in them that they will step up and perform very well," said Holsopple. "It's very important, but I think with the depth we have on our team that should be no problem."
When those four shooters get home, Kentucky will face the No. 2 team in the country and rival West Virginia. UK came out hot after the break and shot a 4,705 in its first competition back against Alaska-Fairbanks.
Kentucky will continue to look to improve on that opening score of the New Year this weekend, but that will especially be case when they face the Mountaineers at full strength. Though the Wildcats are looking to go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country, from here on out, they are focused on what they need to do each day to get better.
"I think there's still plenty of room for improvement," said Holsopple. "That 4,700 mark is a good mark, but we still have more than enough potential to exceed that and get to 4,720 and maybe even 4,730."
As the season wears on with aspirations of postseason success ahead, Kentucky is doing its best to focus on the task at hand every day. Whether it's practice, matches this weekend in Mississippi or an international meet in Germany. It's the only way the Cats will cash in on all the opportunities coming their way.
"There's still space for improvement, but it's important to know that's something we can build on," said Junghanel of their victory over Alaska-Fairbanks. "We don't have to be No. 1 right now. It's good, everything's fine as long as you're No. 1 in the end."
Men's basketball • Kentucky dropped its first SEC home opener in the John Calipari era to the hot-shooting Texas A&M Aggies behind a 40-point effort from Elston Turner on Saturday. • UK freshman Nerlens Noel had his best game in the blue and white with 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals. He's the first player in the NCAA to put up those numbers in a single game since 1996-97. • Sophomore Ryan Harrow scored in double-figures in the sixth-straight game with 14 points, while freshman Archie Goodwin led the squad with 17 points. Women's basketball • No. 6/6 Kentucky improved to 16-1 overall, 4-0 in the SEC and increased its school-record winning streak to 15 after hard-fought wins over the league's newest members No. 20/21 Texas A&M (65-52) and Missouri (69-43) last week. • Against the Aggies, the Wildcats rallied from a six-point half time deficit, using its tenacious defense along with the hot shooting of reigning SEC Player of the Year A'dia Mathies and redshirt sophomore point guard Jennifer O'Neill. Mathies hit three of her four 3-pointers in the second half for 11 of her season-high 23 points, while O'Neill added 15 points and a career-high eight assists in the win. • The Cats traveled to Missouri for the first time in program history on Sunday and again, it was their pressure defense that sealed the victory and snapped the Tigers' 11-game home winning streak. The Tigers, who came into the game leading the nation in 3-pointers made per game with 9.9, were limited to a season-low two 3-pointers. UK also held Missouri's Morgan Eye, the nation's leading 3-point shooter, to just six points and zero treys for the first time this season.
Gymnastics • The University of Kentucky gymnastics team performed solidly on all four events to gather an overall team score of 195.525, in a win at Auburn on Friday night. • The win was Kentucky's first SEC road victory in a dual meet since 1999, and the first SEC season-opening win since 2008. • The Wildcats are off to the best start in school history as they've compiled two straight scores more than 195 to begin a season for the first time ever. • Junior Audrey Harrison posted a 39.2 to win her first career SEC dual all-around competition, and her fifth career all-around title. • Overall, Kentucky earned 13 season or career-high scores in the meet. Rifle • The Kentucky rifle team won its first match of the spring Sunday with a 4705 - 4687 victory over No. 4 Alaska-Fairbanks. • Senior Henri Junghänel led the Wildcats with an aggregate score of 1184, delivering a 590 in smallbore to go along with a 594 in air rifle. • The Wildcats had a strong showing across the board in air rifle with all six shooters breaking the 590 barrier.
Track and field • Bradley Szypka, Cally Macumber and Darryl Bradshaw dazzled the home crowd in Nutter Field House as all three took event titles on Saturday at the Kentucky Invitational, the Wildcats' first home meet of the season. • Szypka won the shot put for the second consecutive meet with a personal record of 18:36m/60-03.0, which came on his final throw. The mark gave him the No. 4 shot put in the nation this season as of Saturday evening. • Macumber won the mile in PR time of 4:42.30, as she pulled away from the field, which included two unattached runners who competed in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials at 800 meters. • The cross country All-American's time - in her first run of the indoor season - currently ranks as second-fastest mile in the country this season. • Bradshaw won the men's 60-meter hurdles in 8:07, while Brandon Bagley took fifth in the event with a time of 8.24. • Kadeem Kushimo also turned in a PR time of 47.85 in the 400m, which was the best run by a collegiate competitor in the event. The sophomore finished second overall. Upcoming schedule